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Paying attention to the little things

August 3, 2011

One thing that gardening does is make you pay attention to the little things. You have to, or you won’t keep your plants alive. You notice that a few of your baby lettuces have been disappearing each night, so you know to go out after dinner and get the slug that’s been at work there. Or you notice that the broccoli leaves are laced with holes, and you know to look on the undersides for a green caterpillar.

garden with scarlet runner beansThese scarlet runner beans are not mine. But I took this photo today. It’s a garden that I bike past often on my training rides. Yesterday, I noticed that their plants are loaded with beans, whereas mine are still just flowering. So I came back home to look more closely at mine.

And what I saw was numerous dead-end stems. What should happen is that, as each flower is pollinated, the red petals fall off and a bean pod grows there. But where my beans should be, there is nothing. The stem dead-ends. So my beans are not pollinating.

And that, of course, made me think about the bees. We’ve all heard about the global bee crisis. Populations are dropping worldwide. Although the experts have some ideas on possible causes, no one is exactly sure what is going on.

But one recent study has found that cell phone signals may disorient bees. Bees are sensitive to the electromagnetic fields of cell phones. The cell phone signals can confuse them, causing them to swarm unnecessarily, and all of that extra activity may be fatal to the bees.

scarlet runner bean flowers in garden[My beans: note the dead-end stems below the flowers, where earlier flowers used to be. This is where the bean pod is supposed to grow – but there is nothing.] –>

There are other likely causes to the bee declines, too, such as air pollution (which also can disorient them) and fungal infections. But in this case, the other garden is only 3 or 4 km from my home in straight-line distance, so something like pollution or infection seems less likely. However, that other garden is located just past the edge of town, in more rural country – so the homes are spaced much farther apart. Which means cell phones also would be farther away from the bees.

I have scarlet runner beans growing on my balcony garden too, and I noticed that, although most of them also have not pollinated, a handful of stalks are producing beans. I also have lots of flowers growing right beside the beans: petunias and nasturtiums. Flowers are great bee attractants – so I wonder if the flowers have pulled in the few bees that are around, and those bees then did the bean flowers while they were up there.

It’s hard to know for sure. But I do remember hearing people talking in Tofino last year, too, about their beans not pollinating, and blaming it on the bees. Well, not on the poor bees themselves – they already have enough to deal with. But on the bee decline – which is almost certainly our fault, even if we don’t know exactly what it is we did this time.

Over 70% of the world’s most important food crops are pollinated by bees. I’ve heard it said that, if bees go extinct, humankind will be starving within three years. I don’t know if that’s strictly true. But it’s true enough that, even if you don’t care about biodiversity and ecosystems, even if you only care about your own personal needs, you should still worry about the bees.

bee on scarlet runner bean flowerOn a happier note: When I was in my garden afternoon to take the picture of my dead-end stems for this post, a bee alighted right in my frame. A bit out of focus, but here he is. So at least there is one out there!

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